NEW ORLEANS — Expect a lot of home cooking in the first two rounds of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.
Not the food variety though.
Of the 16 sites where the early games of the tournament will be played starting Saturday, 15 feature teams playing on their home courts, including LSU. The exception — Columbus, Ohio, where Ohio State’s failure to make the tournament for the 11th straight year cost longtime coach Jim Foster his job.
Of course, such a situation is strictly verboten on the men’s side.
But financial and esthetic considerations make it different for the women, even if it can mean higher seeds having to face lower seeds in hostile settings.
Case in point: Penn State. The third-seeded Lady Lions face the prospect of playing sixth-seeded LSU on Tuesday, provided both teams win their opening-round games. The same situation occurred last year, with Penn State winning.
But Lady Lions coach Coquese Washington is taking a realistic view of the situation.
“We’ve been on both sides of it,” Washington said. “Until our sport grows to the point where playing on truly neutral courts is a reality, we’re stuck with these kinds of situations every year. Our program embraces the idea of playing in great basketball environments, so if that means playing a road game as a higher seed, so be it.”
For the first 20 years of the tournament, early-round games were assigned to the home courts of the higher seeds.
But in 2002, the NCAA went to predesignated sites that still permitted home teams to host but only two years out of every three. That provision was rescinded this year.
There was an experiment with eight teams going to eight sites that lasted a few years, but in 2009 they reverted back to the current format.
“Sixteen was just better,” said Sue Donahoe, the former NCAA vice president for women’s basketball. “Women’s basketball fans are very loyal, but they don’t travel in big numbers, and they don’t tend to follow women’s basketball as a whole.
“There were just too many empty seats, and you don’t want what might be a player’s one chance in the tournament not to be the best experience it can be.”
And while the powerhouse schools tend to bid as often as possible (No. 1 seeds Baylor, Connecticut and Stanford all are at home this year), the opportunity to host has given fans of outlier schools the chance to experience the tournament. In turn, that helps create more parity in a sport that desperately needs it.
Delaware, a sixth-seed led by All-America Elena Delle Donne, is at home for the first time in school history and the games are sold out.
But no school has benefitted more from the chance to host than Gonzaga.
As an 11th seed in 2011, the Lady Zags knocked off knocked off Iowa and UCLA. And last season, also as an 11 seed, Gonzaga beat Rutgers and Miami.
Taking advantage of the rule change, the 12th-seeded Lady Zags are again at home this year, playing No. 5 Iowa State in the first round. The game is sold out.
Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly is taking the high road about the situation, saying, “Our kids would rather go play a great Gonzaga team in front of 6,000 people than play in an empty gym somewhere.”
In fact, as was the case in 2011, the winner of the Gonzaga subregional will stay in Spokane, Wash., because that’s also a regional site, although the games will be played in a different arena. The winner of the Baton Rouge subregional will go to Spokane.
But while being a home team is obviously an advantage, it doesn’t automatically mean advancing, as LSU learned last year.
Of the 14 host teams in 2012, only six went to the Sweet 16. It was eight of 14 in 2011, eight of 13 in 2010 and four of 12 in 2009.
That would indicate the system’s working, but an NCAA study group is considering going back to the top 16 seeds hosting, which would make it harder for low seeds to advance.
Continuing to allow schools to bid to host every year also is on the table.
For those reasons, no early round or regional sites for 2014 have yet been awarded.
But instead of worrying of the hand-wringing that’s sure to ensue whatever the outcome, perhaps the committee should heed the words of Notre Dame center Natalie Achonwa.
The Fighting Irish are the only No. 1 seed not playing at home. And instead of being sent to neutral Columbus, Ohio, they’re playing at Iowa where they could face the host Hawkeyes in the second round. That would make Notre Dame only the sixth No. 1 seed in tournament history to play a host school.
No sweat, said Achonwa.
“We’ve played in a lot of great facilities this season, on a lot of great home courts in front of a lot of great fans,” she said. “I think it’s prepared us for the tournament.”